A question arises for me every now and again: If a play competently, candidly dramatizes a controversial social issue that has never been so frankly dramatized before, is it breaking new ground simply for the fact of being the first to make theatre audiences look hard at the elephant in the room? Or is something more required? Mart Crowley’s 1968 The Boys in the Band, in the harsh light of retrospect, was an entry level primer about the gay experience in the America of the period; and a decade before, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun offered a cast of characters that were equally, in their way, a one from column A, one from column B collection of archetypes—shedding light on the experience of being working class black in America, and the challenges of integration into white society. Yet both these pays achieved the status of classics; and when performed without interpretive distortion or shortfall, they retain damn near as much power as when they debuted.
And I was wondering why I don’t think The Submission, by Jeff Talbott, has quite the same magic, even though it has a terse, lean script, a fine cast and mercilessly honest direction by Walter Bobbie. The premise is a bit whacked out, but you can just about buy in: Danny (Jonathan Groff) is an aspiring playwright, who has submitted his latest to the Humanitas Festival, which has earmarked it for full production. They think it’s exquisitely powerful; so does he. Unfortunately it’s about a black ghetto mom and her card sharp son, and Danny, who is as white as can be, and afraid that his WASP name would stop people from taking him and it seriously, sent it out with an invented African-sounding name on the by-line. Rather than fess up, he hires Estelle (Rutina Wesley), a black actress, to play the part of “the author” and represent his interests throughout the pre-production and rehearsal process through opening night—whereupon, if things go well, she’ll “out” him to the public. It’s not a plan that Danny’s lover Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a civilian (not in show biz, dear) thinks all that wise, and Danny’s straight actor friend Trevor (Will Rogers) is likewise a bit dubious. But Danny has the power of ego, energy, conviction and this incredible opportunity fueling him, so the quartet embark upon the adventure of the unlikely scheme.
So let’s look at what we’ve got here:
Danny: Gay, insightful, liberal, but with issues about reverse prejudice.
Pete: The gay partner, support system but voice of reason.
Trevor: Not a native cityite like the other two, but a plain spoken good-ol’ boy from Texas. Who likes girls.
Estelle: Streetwise black chick, likewise straight. She buys into the charade, even though she understands she’s playing a part in promulgating a stereotype—however positive.
Though the make up of the group is informed by modern day, liberal sophistication, it still doesn’t get much more One from Column A and One from Column B than that. As it must be to examine An Issue.
Now without spoilers, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Not everything will go according to plan (If it did, there’d be no play). Agendas will conflict, tempers will flare and things will be said; things about black entitlement at the hands of liberals, the theatre community’s Gay Mafia, all those hot buttons oft discussed informally but never put on the table in a public forum. A new millennium look at prejudice as filtered through the world of art.
Given all the play’s virtues, then, what’s missing?
For me it came down to this: someone I could care about. The Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun may ultimately be instructive about the social condition, but while you’re in their living room, boy oh boy do you give a damn what happens to them and hope it happens well. The partyers in The Boys in the Band may at times be a tougher group to “like,” but by the end you’re made to feel for them, All of them. And what both the Hansberry and Crowley plays have in common, aside from that, is the fact that both sets of characters are victims of a repressive society. They didn’t create the environment; the environment and how it operates is a bone fact. They’re just doing their best to navigate it.
In The Submission, our central character assumes certain societal paradigms are in play, and would be against him, but that’s by no means certain. In fact, every other character in the play believes his reasoning to be somewhat to extremely fucked up (as they would, and some do, put it). The social situation here is one that the characters themselves are complicit in cooking up, and ego and ambition are the key motivators. So where are our sympathies supposed to lie? And when the darker sub-issues are exposed…how are we supposed to feel about them?
I hasten to add, there’s nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with the playwright wanting to paint an ambiguous picture. It’s a perfectly legitimate artistic strategy. But that ambiguity—here, at least—defines the line of demarcation between an issue play that makes a difference, changes lives and raises awareness…and one that’s just one more very smart, very inside, very East Coast, very clever highlight in an institutional theatre’s subscription series.
Laudable. Worthy. Worthwhile.
nothing you’ll be thinking about much a week or so after you’ve seen it…
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